Spring is a great time for small things

luna moth

Even the largest and most beautiful of insects, such as this newly emerged luna moth, are easily overlooked by someone not accustomed to "seeing small".

Few would argue that March and April are a great time to get outside to enjoy the weather in Texas, tornadoes notwithstanding.  But how many think of spring as great insect-watching weather? Well it is. A multitude of insects break their winter dormancy at the same time as their host plants.  This leads to great abundance of interesting subjects for those who have eyes to see.

The biggest obstacle to insect watching, I find, is the common inability to “see small”. While there are some impressive large insects–most notably butterflies and moths–most insects are tiny, the size of a pencil eraser or smaller.

The idea of having lots of insects around may be repulsive to some people.  This is unfortunate, and likely due to a few bad characters–like mosquitos and ticks.  But by large most of our six-legged neighbors are quite happy minding their own business and staying out of our hair.

This silent majority of insects, with careful observation, can be found exploring plants and staying as far from people as possible.  For example, the luna moth caterpillar, the immature stage of one of the most beautiful moths in America feeds on pecan trees.  There it spends its days well camouflaged by its host’s leaves.  And despite their large size (by insect standards) luna moth caterpillars are rarely seen by people, and rarely cause damage that we would notice.

My wife and I almost missed the newly emerged luna moth in the accompanying picture last weekend on a hike in the Ouachita Mountains of southeast Oklahoma.  Resting on a twig just a few inches from the trail, it was pure luck that my eyes were able to focus on this springtime beauty. With wings still in the process of filling and stiffening with blood, the moth was a perfect poser.  As I focused with my camera I marveled at how difficult it is for our human eyes to adjust to seeing small things after living in the giant world of buildings and streets and cars.

Interestingly, luna moth damage, like that caused by many other native caterpillars, is rarely harmful to trees. This is because other native insects, like the ichneumon wasp, Enicospilus americanus, are specialists in stalking and parasitizing luna moth caterpillars.  These delicate, golden insects very carefully prowl only those trees where the luna moth caterpillar feeds.  Rarely are the hunter or the hunted seen, but the deadly hide and seek game between the two species keeps both insect populations healthy but relatively rare.

Each year thousands of people spend a great deal of money to travel to exotic places on safari to see wonderful wildlife in action, yet a short trip to the backyard can yield similar wildlife-watching pleasures.  If only we can “see small”.

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